When England announced their 55-man return-to-training squad last summer, it's probably fair to say James Bracey was in the outer orbit among candidates for the Test side. But Bracey, a well thought of young wicketkeeper-batter from Gloucestershire, who had impressed for England Lions on their 2019-20 tour of Australia, quickly made an impression. Twelve months on, he is on the verge of a Test debut at Lord's.
Having spent almost 20 weeks in bio-secure bubbles as England's reserve batting option last summer and on tours of Sri Lanka and India, Bracey had been seen as vying for a spot in the top three when the squad to face New Zealand was announced earlier this month. However, with a dressing-room mishap ruling out Ben Foakes, and England's other wicketkeeping options, Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow, not considered after their post-IPL quarantine, Bracey is set to take the gloves - something he admits he "didn't really have on my radar."
"I was really excited when I got the call about being in the 15," he said. "It's a bit different to how I have been around the group in the last year or so. I think that step up into the main squad is a big landmark. I have been taken on in each group - originally in the 55 and then it kept being cut down and now I feel like I am really close. I am really keen to get going.
"When I heard about Ben it was almost a shock - I didn't really have it on my radar to be there as a keeper. I knew that Ben was highly likely to take those gloves, and when I got that call it didn't really sink in straight away but when I arrived in London it started to hit that it was a distinct possibility."
Bracey's spot has yet to be confirmed, but he is suddenly the frontline option in a position where England have not been short of competition over recent years (Sam Billings, who has kept in the white-ball teams, is also with the squad as cover). Buttler is currently first choice, while Foakes has won universal plaudits for the standard of his keeping and was in line to play his first home Test after impressing in India. But given Bracey's rapid rise, it would not be a surprise if he grabbed his chance.
"While we were away this winter, all four of us were there [and] it wasn't something I really looked at. I always knew that if I continued to work on my keeping there was always a possibility. I am really glad now that I put in that extra shift because it puts me in lot better spot now. With Jos and Jonny and Ben coming back later in the summer, it might not be mine to keep but as long as I show myself as a good keeper, it is definitely going to help me out going forward.
"I've had a lot of times this winter when I've been trying to calculate how I'm getting in the team and how I'm going to get that opportunity. But the fact of the matter is a lot of the time it happens when you don't expect it. That time hopefully has now come.
"I've benefited from Foakesy having a freak accident and I think if I put in good performances over the next couple of games, that could see me bed into the squad moving forward. I'm looking at each game at a time and this week if I get out there it's not only an opportunity to push myself with the gloves but really show what I can do with the bat and show that I can do different roles."
Bracey, 24, bats No. 3 with Gloucestershire and initially only kept wicket occasionally, but he has increasingly focused on that side of his game. Speaking to the Evening Standard last week, he credited Foakes' example over the winter as helping him to improve his own game, and he revealed that he has continued to seek advice from the Surrey man in the build-up; Lord's is a notoriously difficult ground to keep at, though Bracey has the advantage of having done so in a County Championship match last month.
"I am gutted for him [Foakes]," Bracey said. "He's been brilliant, I spoke to him yesterday and he is really helpful to me in terms of keeping and our different bowlers and how you can combat that and what challenges I might come up against. I know he is gutted but he has been brilliant with me over the last 48 hours.
"I have worked really hard on my keeping ever since coming into the Lions and I feel like it is in a good place. I have worked hard with the other keepers on tour and the keeping coaches, I did a long catch yesterday and go again today and I feel I am in a really confident place with that and that I can perform with the gloves and the bat.
"There are a couple of different factors. It will be different in terms of the pace of the pitch and the slope and sometimes you have to work with little angles but it is all stuff that the bowler and [Joe] Root and other guys have given me tips on and I am sure when it comes to Wednesday I will be in a good spot."
Bracey said that his time spent with the team over the last year made him confident he could "do a job in Test cricket in the top three", but he is more likely to make his debut batting at No. 6 or 7. Such versatility, added to his utility behind the stumps, is only likely to aid his case when it comes to being part of the planning for England's major Test goal this year - the winter Ashes trip to Australia.
"It's hard not to think about it but I'm trying to stay present, there are seven Test matches this summer and a lot can happen. I'm really excited about the possibility of playing two of the world's best teams this summer and obviously an Ashes tour next winter is another goal as well. We'll see how these first few games go and then hopefully I'll be in a position where I can't be ignored."
Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick